When I first announced that I was going to be switching to a low carb eating style, I got a lot of mixed responses. Some people were really happy and congratulated me. These women told me they have been eating low carb for a while and are loving it and they wondered why I hadn’t switched over before!
Then there were others who weren’t so happy. They questioned why I would give up a a large food group? Wouldn’t I just end up craving more carbs and eventually binge on everything? Doesn’t it mess with women’s hormone balance?
I totally get it! I asked the exact SAME questions before I decided to go low carb, high fat.
- Would I be able to cut back my beloved carbs?
- Would I get fat from eating so much fat?
- Would I put a stress on my hormones from eating fewer carbs?
I have my reasons for switching to low carb, and some of them include:
- Cutting back on the sugar, even sugar from so called “healthy” carbs.
- Not needing to eat every 2 -3 hours.
- Switching from a sugar burner to a fat burner.
Studies have shown that a low carb way of eating can help many people lose weight and improve their metabolic function. However, this isn’t to say that low carb diets are right for EVERYONE!
My goal of this post isn’t to try and get you to switch to a low carb way of eating. The purpose of this post is to help give you information so that you can make the decision for YOU! I tell my Drop A Dress Size challengers repeatedly to find a way of eating that is going to work best for them. Does that include more carbs than I eat? Perhaps. Does that include less carbs than I eat? Maybe. There is no ONE right way or ONE wrong way to eat. It’s about figuring out which foods make you feel the best.
Today, I want to address the topic of low carb and women’s health.
I’ve seen many women switch to an extremely low carb way of eating and do very poorly. You may have heard of the Ketogenic diet and are wondering if this is what I do. No, I DO NOT follow a traditional keto diet, meaning only eating 5% carbs. Personally, I feel cutting carbs this drastically is too hard on women’s hormones.
Low Carb, Low Calories, and Women’s Hormones
We have three major glands that regulate our hormones:
- Hypothalmus – located in our brain
- Pituitary – located right below the hypothalmus in our brain
- Adrenals – located at the top of our kidneys
All three of these glands interact to help keep our hormones in balance. These glands are very sensitive to things like stress, calorie levels, and exercise.
Long term stress, which can be caused by many factors such as lack of sleep, job stress, overexercising, eating too little, etc. will cause you to overproduce the hormones cortisol and norepinephrine, creating an imbalance which increases pressure on the hypothalmus, pituitary, and adrenals. This is also known as “adrenal fatigue.”
For many women, lowering carbs too much can also act as a stressor, leading to malfunction of our glands and hormones.
Irregular Menstrual Cycles and Amenorrhea
Some women, including myself, may experience irregular menstrual cycles from going too low carb, or they may even lose their menstrual cycle for 3 months or more, known as amenorrhea.
This is what happened to me. I actually ended up losing too much weight eating low carb, and I had to gain some back in order to get my reproductive hormones back on track.
The most common causes of amenorrhea are losing too much weight, eating too few calories, eating too few carbs, and exercising too much.
If your carb or calorie consumption is too low, it can suppress your leptin levels and interfere with leptin’s ability to regulate your reproductive hormones. This is particularly true for underweight or lean women on a low-carb diet.
I was already very lean, so losing more weight disrupted my hormones.
Insulin stimulates leptin synthesis, so if you are dramatically cutting your carbs, you are likely further dampening your body’s leptin levels. A certain level of leptin is needed to maintain proper female hormone levels and menstruation. Thus, leptin levels are a sensitive marker of nutritional status in women.
What did I do to get them back on track?
I started eating more, including more carbs!
Carbs and the Thyroid
Another really important gland is your thyroid gland. It is a butterfly-shaped gland that lies in front of your windpipe. It uses iodine from food to produce two hormones: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). These two hormones play a huge role in your body and are responsible for things like breathing, temperature control, cholesterol levels, body weight, and more.
Your active thyroid hormone, T3, is sensitive to to calorie and carb intake. If calories and/or carbs are too low, T3 levels drop and reverse T3 (rT3) levels rise. rT3 is a hormone that blocks the action of T3. Having low levels of T3 can lead to weight gain, slower metabolism, fatigue, poor concentration, and more.
I often see women who are chronic dieters or who cut carbs too low experience many of these symptoms. It’s so important to get your hormones checked, especially if you are experiencing any of these symptoms. But it’s also important to get the proper tests. You can read more about thyroid testing here.
When Do I Know I Need More Carbs?
Getting your hormones back on track means convincing your body that it’s not in danger. Remember I said that I lost my period when I went below a certain weight? I had to start eating more in order to let my body feel safe again, to let it know that there is enough food for it to perform ALL of it’s necessary functions.
For others this may mean getting a better, longer sleep at night, cutting back on exercise, or reducing overall stress.
Very often, I see women dealing with weight lost resistance and poor exercise recovery. I’ll hear stories about how eating low carb was working wonders for them and then all of a sudden they lost their cycle or they weren’t seeing results anymore. Sometimes these ladies were feeling great and then started to crash. Many people immediately blame it on adrenal fatigue and start taking adrenal support supplements hoping that will do the trick.
Of course, some of these symptoms could be due to serious issues such as altered sleeping patterns, cycle-related issues due to stress, thyroid problems, or their adrenals. There are also other reproductive problems, such as PCOS and endometriosis, that can also create hormonal havoc and weight gain. But if you’re a relatively healthy person and you’ve been tested and everything comes back normal, then maybe the answer is more simple…
Maybe you need to add in more carbs!
Let me be clear though, I’m not talking about going back to eating legumes and whole grains.
Signs You Need More Carbs
- If you are very active, especially with a focus on frequent, high-intensity workouts
- If you start having trouble recovering from your workouts
- If your thyroid is underactive, even with a clean diet and support from medications
- If you have adrenal fatigue
- If you start to lose your period or have irregular cycles (pre-menopause)
- If you’ve been very low carb for an extended period of time
- During pregnancy and while breastfeeding
Signs You Need Less Carbs
- If you have a condition such as PCOS, fibroids or endometriosis
- If you are dealing with small intestine bacterial or yeast overgrowth
- If you are insulin resistant or have diabetes
- If you have a neurodegenerative disease
- If you have certain forms of cancer
How Many Carbs Should I Be Eating?
Unfortunately, I can’t give you an exact answer. I can’t tell you how many carbs you should be eating. Only YOU can figure that out. However, I can give you some direction.
If you are a relatively active woman, but you’re experiencing a lack of energy, having a hard time losing weight despite doing “all the right things,” have thyroid problems, or have an irregular cycle, you may want to consider bumping your carbs up to 100g and see how you feel.
I usually recommend to women to consume about 20 – 25% of their total calories in carbs (unless you have some conditions mentioned above that may warrant you going lower.) For some, this may seem like a high carb intake, but when you compare it to the standard American diet, it’s quite low!
The fact is, you have to figure out the range that works best for you and YOUR body! I like to tell my clients to start a food journal and write down how they feel 1 – 2 hours after a meal. Are you bloated or gassy? Are you hungry or do you still feel full? Do you have cravings or not? Do you feel tired or energetic? Answering these questions will let you know that what you ate either works well for you or if it’s something that doesn’t work so well.
- Eating too low carb is not always beneficial for women’s health.
- If you’re a female and you’ve been doing very low carb and/or low calories for an extended period of time, you may find benefit with the health of your thyroid, adrenals, liver, and ovaries by bumping them up a bit.
- Changes in your cycle may not be related to exercise intensity or body fatness, but to inadequate energy intake (including carbohydrates levels) to meet the demands of your active lifestyle.
- Sleep, stress levels (both physiological and psychological), and the health of your thyroid (which can also be negatively affected by a lower carb approach), among a multitude of other factors also play a role in regulating your hormones, so make sure to work with a practitioner to get these things sorted out instead of covering the symptoms with medications and upping your carbohydrate intake alone.
- Experimentation and individualizing your diet to your specific needs is key!